Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.
Our content ratings: V 0; L 2; S/N 1.
Our star rating (-15): 3
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Like most sports movies, director Craig Gillespie’s film is a tale of underdogs struggling to win. However, it is not the Big Game that is the climax, but rather the Big Try-Out, this being the “based on a true story” of how the first baseball players from India came to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Centering more on the agent who discovered them, J.B. Bernstein, it is also a redemptive character transformation tale, Bernstein not being the most wholesome human being when we first meet him. The plot is very familiar, but the story is still worth following.
Mad Men’s Jon Hamm stars as J.B. Bernstein, who in partnership with Aash (Aasif Mandvi) has left a large agency so they can set up their own. However, after a long period of wooing a Samoan NFL star named Popo (Rey Maualuga), they discover that a larger agency has snatched him away just as J.B. is about to sign him. Almost out of money, and with no prospects in mind, Aash is ready to call “Game over,” but J.B. persuades him to stay with him. Good thing, because one night J.B. indulges in late-night channel flipping between a cricket match and Susan Boyle’s “Britain’s Got Talent.” Watching the cricket player called a “bowler” throw the ball, he comes up with the idea of going to India to sign up bowlers and bring them back to the USA for training, thus opening up baseball to a new market with over a billion people. He is able to persuade the investor Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma) to bankroll his project, but the imposed time basis for the project is terribly short. Aash normally would be the one to go to India, but he is married with twin babies that are always sick, so J.B. is the one to fly to Mumbai.
He enlists a baseball fan named Amit (Pitobash a Bollywood comedy star), and together they promote the campaign by producing a Million Dollar Arm reality show that captures the attention of young Indian males. Joining the team is retired MLB scout Ray (Alan Arkin) who seems to suffer from something akin to narcolepsy—compared to this constantly napping scout Tom Hanks’ alcoholic, zombie-like manager Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own is a whirling dynamo. For a while it looks as if the project will fail—none of the would-be pitchers’ throws measure much more than 60 mph on a radar gun. Then at last two young men in the same city throw balls faster than the required 90 mph. Neither is a cricket player—in fact they do not even like the game. Rinku (Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi) is a javelin thrower, and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) is a laborer alongside his father. Neither knows anything about baseball either. It is only back in L.A. that J.B. learns that they were not cricket players.
As soon as they land J.B. dumps the two youth in a hotel and leaves them, so eager is he to take up again his bedding down of hot models for an evening. His tenant in the small bungalow on his property is doctor-in-training Brenda (Lake Bell). During his stint in India the only contact he has had with a female was skyping with her about his work there and issues relating to his house. She seems to be more concerned about the boys than he. Of course, the naïve youth run afoul of things at the hotel (the film mines the humor by depicting them in America, and earlier J.B. in India, as fish out of water), so J.B. has to come and pick them up and bed them down at his house, which to his dismay puts a crimp in his nightly trysts. He sets them up with USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), who expresses doubts that he can teach them the essentials of pitching in such a short time frame that Mr. Chang has demanded. The lads are disappointed that J.B. dashes off on other business, leaving them all day at the practice field.
Both youth prove inept at everything but throwing, not even knowing what a baseball glove is. (I write “throwing” because they are not able to control the ball, thus making their catchers scramble to retain the ball.) Day after day passes, and they show little improvement. They are homesick and frustrated by their unfamiliar surroundings, but J.B. is never there to support them. Brenda becomes their confidante, and finally their champion when she confronts J.B., as does Tom. The eventual romance that blossoms between J.B. that is part of his transformation from ambitious businessman to compassionate human being is enjoyable, but, when you think about it, distracting from the much more important story of the first Indian baseball players in the USA.
Indeed, the first part of the film, mainly set in India, is the best part of the film, lifting it above the level of predictable sports film that it sinks into during the last half. The teeming streets of India are gorgeously photographed, and what little we are shown of the family lives of Rinku and Dinesh is far more interesting than J.B.’s foibles. The family meals and the farewell ceremonies for the sons are the most moving moments in the movie, even in their truncated form. It is good to see a man change from money grubber or heel to human being, but there are lots of good films in this genre—witness The Doctor, A Civil Action, Kramer vs. Kramer, even Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. How much better this film would have been had we been allowed to spend more time with Rinku and Dinesh. The film’s scriptwriter Tom McCarthy did far better work on his The Station Agent and The Visitor, two far superior films that he also directed, but then some would add, he wasn’t beholden to the Disney film factory for them.